Traditional PhD Programs

In Germany, most PhD degrees are earned by independent doctoral candidates who are independent members of a research group and employees at the university. They work on their own scientific project and are typically not enrolled in a formal PhD program.

Those PhD positions often include other responsibilities, such as teaching and mentoring students or serving as a research assistant – and therefore offer the opportunity to gain other important skills for a future academic career.

It is important to note that a master’s degree in the intended field of study is nearly always a prerequisite. The Baden-Württemberg study guide offers a step-by-step guide to applying for traditional doctoral studies.

Please visit the Frequently Asked Questions about PhD Programs to find out more about how to apply, find funding, etc.

The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) also offers comprehensive information about doing a PhD as an independent doctoral candidate on their website that you might find helpful.  

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. How do I apply for a position as an independent doctoral candidate?
  2. When is my application due?
  3. What are the degree requirements?
  4. What are the prerequisites to apply?
  5. How long does it take to earn a PhD?
  6. What do I do if I don’t have a master’s degree?
  7. Do I need to speak German?
  8. Where can I find more information about programs at specific universities?

1. How do I apply for a position as an independent doctoral candidate?

Open positions for doctoral students are often posted by universities and research institutes directly on their website or on platforms like bw-career.com alongside other job openings. Anyone who meets the requirements for the position (for example, a master's degree or experience in specific scientific subjects) can apply. For international candidates, it is important to consider questions like: Do I need a work permit? Is a German PhD recognized in my home country? What are the language requirements for my final PhD thesis or dissertation?
Another option is to apply directly to a professor, department or institute by sending in an abstract about the research project you plan to conduct. This application needs to be very well prepared and the project well considered in order to convince a professor to become your PhD advisor. The best way to identify potential advisors is to speak with professors or academic advisors at the university where you did your undergraduate or master’s degree. You can also find potential advisors by identifying authors of important papers in the field you plan to focus on.
Since each university and department has its own regulations and expectations, it is highly recommended to contact them directly before applying.

2. When is my application due?

Applications for traditional doctoral studies are generally considered on a rolling basis, so applications can be submitted at any time. Positions for doctoral students are also advertised throughout the year, but if you are applying for scholarships, you should plan to apply at least one year in advance of the date you’d like to start.
Structured doctoral programs generally have fixed deadlines, but they vary greatly from program to program. It is best to visit the website of the programs or contact them directly if you have any questions about when to apply.

3. What are the degree requirements?

The goal of traditional doctoral studies is for the candidate to conduct and complete an independent research project under the supervision of a professor, the Doktorvater or Doktormutter. In general, the title is awarded after the candidate has passed oral examinations and turned in a PhD thesis or dissertation, which has to be reviewed and accepted by a committee of professors. Policies differ, however, so doctoral candidates need to familiarize themselves with their university's specific regulations, called the Promotionsordnung. Every university in Baden-Württemberg has offices dedicated to helping potential and current doctoral students understand these regulations.

4. How long does it take to earn a PhD?

The time it takes to earn a PhD can vary immensely. The average is about three to five years, but the length will depend greatly on the research area and the amount of time required by the other responsibilities the position entails. Of course, other factors like the doctoral candidate's ability to work independently and his or her level of motivation and organization will also play a big role.

5. What are the prerequisites to apply?

A master’s degree in the same field of study is generally required of all applicants. Individual universities and programs have specific requirements for admission to a doctoral program. It is important to check with both your supervisor (Doktorvater/mutter) as well as the office at the university or the department dealing with doctoral students to make sure everything is in order, as requirements do change. The Promotionsordnung is the legally binding document that spells out requirements, so reading through this document is an important first step.

6. What do I do if I don’t have a master’s degree?

Some universities offer "fast track" programs that admit students with bachelor’s degrees, requiring some additional coursework to prepare them for the research phase of the PhD. You can also explore the many master’s programs in Baden-Württemberg that would qualify you for doctoral studies. For information about master's programs taught in English, please visit our Study Guide, for a complete overview use our database on www.studieninfo-bw.de (German only).

7. Do I need to speak German?

German language ability is generally not a prerequisite, and many German students also choose to write their dissertations in English. The answer to this question will depend on your advisor, the type of research you are conducting and, possibly, on the Promotionsordnung at the university.

8. Where can I find more information about programs at specific universities?

The universities in Baden-Württemberg have more information on their websites as well as specific information about doctoral studies. Visit these websites to find out more information about how doctoral study works at the various institutions and who you can contact for help.